New York noir: Paul Auster, Invisible

Paul Auster, Invisible (Faber, 2009) I must have bought this hardback edition when it came out in the UK at a time when I was still enthusiastic about Auster’s fiction. Since then, I’ve had disappointing experiences with his work (so much so that I haven’t posted about them here – except for one, noted below). This, however, is one of his better efforts – despite some over-fussy tricksiness that has become rather a cliché in his narrative approach.

The first part, for example, is a first-person narrative in the voice of the protagonist, Adam Walker, a second-year undergrad at Columbia, NYC, and an aspiring poet. It’s 1967, and he meets at a party a fascinating but sinister Franco-German professor of politics called Rudolf Born (that’s another of PA’s not-so-subtle mannerisms: the suggestive names), and his lovely partner, Margot. This being Auster, Adam is angelically handsome (like his sister), Born is terrifyingly clever (and worryingly bigoted and a tad aggressive and sarcastic), while beautiful Margot is a bit of a cipher in the role of sort-of femme fatale.

Born makes Adam an unlikely offer of literary work. The young man, who has reservations about Born’s motives, is naïve and ambitious enough to accept. He has the inevitable and over-signposted affair with Margot (who’s ten years older than him, so even more of a young man’s fantasy figure), and then things go decidedly pear-shaped. Adam’s sense of morality is severely tested.

The second part, as our narrator intrusively points out, is in the second person – a device that doesn’t really work here. Adam has gone to Paris, and the plot with Born and Margot becomes even more noirish. The third part, set thirty years later, has a different (third-person) narrator. Here most of the loose ends of the unlikely plot are tied up. The final part is focused on one of the Parisian characters Adam had met, who has now also become entangled in Born’s schemes.

Invisible is almost a success. It’s quite an exciting (if highly implausible and over-crafted) plot, and there are some genuine, quite shocking surprises and revelations. This managed to hold my attention sufficiently not to give up. I found the foregrounded artifice off-putting. It all became a bit too ‘See how cleverly I deploy the post-modern tropes, while keeping a complex story on course?’

Interesting, then, and entertaining, but not great. And Adam Walker, as his name is perhaps meant to suggest, is just too pedestrian and plodding. Like the demonic Born and most of the women characters, he’s two-dimensional.

Invisible is nevertheless more rewarding than the only other Auster novel I’ve posted on here at TDays: Mr Vertigo.


4 thoughts on “New York noir: Paul Auster, Invisible

  1. Interesting Simon – I had a go at reading Auster, but we’re probably talking in the 1990s or early 2000s, and if I’m honest I didn’t really get on with him. I certainly never felt drawn to revisit him and although I can’t be sure after all this time, I suspect the clever-clever tropes may have been a bit too much. I don’t think I’ll spend any valuable reading time giving him another try!!

    • His New York Trilogy was my first experience of PA, and I liked it a lot. Maybe because back then, when it was first published, it seemed fresh and innovative. Then he seemed to become repetitive, the trickery was too familiar maybe.

  2. Oh dear! Matthew enjoyed his New York Trilogy but I haven’t ever fancied his stuff. I don’t like second person narrative, either, although I did a review in it once of a book that was in the second person!

    • What got me is that the narrator commented on switching to second person – as if it needed signposting. And it contributed very little to the outcome, leaving me to think it was just a technical flourish.

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